Story by Alan D. McNarie
Photos by Elyse Butler
At Volcano Art Center’s Niaulani Campus on the Big Island, Marian Berger is washing her hands. She always does that before touching The Book. The Book is The Living Endemic Birds of Hawai‘i: Mea Makamae, limited edition, copy no. 1. It’s enormous: forty by twenty-six inches—a “double elephant folio” large enough that Berger’s thirty-three art-quality prints can show the birds life-size. There are 250 full-size sets of Endemic Birds, and they retail for $4,500 each unbound—but The Book, hand-bound by Hilo master bookbinder Jésus Sanchez, sells for $6,000. Berger, a slender, 50-something woman with brown hair and striking green eyes, had already earned a reputation as one of Hawai‘i’s most respected wildlife artists when in 2007 a benefactor (who prefers to remain anonymous) offered to sponsor Endemic Birds, the project that would occupy the next three years of her life.
While Berger washes her hands, a Volcano Art Center staffer brings the book, swaddled in black cloth, to a special podium in Niaulani’s Great Room. Berger gently pulls the cloth aside, opens the tooled leather cover and pulls a sheet of tissue paper away from the first plate to reveal an incredibly detailed watercolor portrait of two ‘alala. They are large, black birds; in Berger’s portrait one dangles upside down so it’s eye to eye with the other perched on a lower branch.
‘Alala are commonly called Hawaiian crows. But recent DNA tests, Berger notes, say otherwise: “These are considered ravens now. They’re playful and very smart.” Mainland ravens, she points out, are among the few animals known to make and use tools. She’d love to observe and paint a tool-using ‘alala, but chances to observe an ‘alala—as well as many of the other endemic birds Berger paints—are rare. In fact, these prints might be the closest most people will ever come to seeing a real ‘alala. They’re believed extinct in the wild, done in by habitat destruction, disease and introduced predators. Berger based these two playful ‘alala on a pair at the San Diego Zoo Foundation’s Keauhou Ranch facility. All eighty-four surviving ‘alala live in the foundation’s various facilities (sales of Endemic Birds support the foundation, which runs captive breeding centers for endangered birds in Volcano and in Makawao on Maui). The foundation is also selling individual prints, some of which line the art center’s halls. Berger pauses by a print of an ‘io, a Hawaiian hawk, swooping down on an alarmed ‘i‘iwi, a scarlet bird with a curved, salmon-colored beak.
“I must admit, I had problems with it. It was my editor’s idea,” she says of the predatory moment caught in paint. “I had to tell myself the ‘i‘iwi escaped.”